Sucker PunchReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/26/11 18:41:47
A few years ago, while writing for the Website That Shall Not Be Named, I found myself charged with writing a review of a unassuming little art film by the name of “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.” At the time, this assignment did not fill me with any more anxiety or dread than usual--I actually sort of liked the rambunctious energy of the first “Angels” film and my long-standing crush on star/co-producer Drew Barrymore was no secret either--but as I sat there watching it detonating with all the quiet dignity of an unending string of dirty-to-downright-filthy bombs, I found myself growing slightly put off by its sheer stupidity and willful lack of anything remotely resembling coherence and when I sat down to write down my thoughts, I opined that it was, and I quote, “not merely one of the worst films in recent memory but it could go down as one of the worst things ever conceived by human hands--that is, if it gave any evidence that it was made by actual human beings as opposed to robots hell-bent on destroying humanity by turning their minds to mush.” Of course, I may have overstated things slightly in calling it one of the worst things ever created by mankind--at the time, I had somehow overlooked such other tragedies as war, “AfterMASH” and that CD where Garth Brooks was pretending to be a grunge rocker or something like that--but while I have seen plenty of bottomlessly horrible films in the ensuing years, none have ever come close to challenging its position as arguably the worst movie that I have ever seen (with the possible exceptions of “Bad Boys 2”--2003 was a hell of a summer--and the inimitable “Howard the Duck”). Now it seems that the impossible has happened and that streak has been broken in the form of “Sucker Punch,” a movie so stupid, so tawdry and so bereft of anything remotely resembling what one might wistfully refer to as “entertainment value” that it feels as though it was made by and for people who looked upon “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” in much the same way that Truffaut did when he first encountered “Citizen Kane.”“How bad is this movie?,” you may ask. Well, let me, in the form of a few fairly painful one-liners, briefly explain just how bad it really is. It is so bad that it makes one long for the simple quiet dignity, narrative cohesion and restrained performances of the likes of “Battle: Los Angeles” and “Red Riding Hood.” It is so bad that at the screening I attended, it marked the first time that the gratingly omnipresent trailer for that seemingly useless remake of “Arthur” was not the low point of the evening’s moviegoing experience. It is so bad that when the film’s comparatively friendly and caring lobotomist shows up to do his thing, I almost found myself standing up in my seat and shouting “I’ll have what she’s having!” Believe me, I could keep this up all night and I assure that as awful as these jokes have been, if you had to choose between them or the experience of sitting through “Sucker Punch,” you would be begging me for more of these highly questionable bon mots while offering to supply the rim shots.
This is one of those films that is difficult to summarize because no matter how hard I may try to explain it as coherently as possible, it is still going to sound as though I had been goofing off in the lobby during two or three reels of key exposition. Sort of set in the mid-1960’s, the film stars Emily Browning as Babydoll, a 20-going-on-12 nymphet type who, as the story opens, is reeling from the deaths of both her mother and her younger sister, both of whom may or may not have died at the hands of her evil stepfather, who subsequently sends her off to a Vermont mental institution so creepy and forbidding that it makes the Willowbrook State School look like Princeton by comparison (or at least Choate) and arranges with the evil and corrupt chief orderly (Oscar Isaac) to have her undergo a lobotomy in five days time. Unable to cope with her situation, Babydoll’s changes her perception of the surrounding in order to better accept it--in this rosy fantasy, the hospital is a lavish brothel, the orderly is a sleazy pimp/procurer known as Blue Jones, the Polish chief psychiatrist Gorski (Carla Gugino) is the joint’s madam and choreographer (this character inspires the film’s only genuine laugh when what she does is referred to as “Polish therapy”) and she and her neo-jailbait inmates--Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens and Amber (Jamie Chung)--are hookers who put on an endless series of erotic dance routines to entertain the clientele. Naturally, Babydoll wants to escape and when she discovers during her first attempt at dancing that she is capable of busting moves so spectacular that they practically hypnotize everyone watching them while sending her into yet another dream state in which she and her new friends do battle with giant ninja robots, dragons, zeppelins and the like under the tutelage of the Yoda-like sage known as the Wise Man (Scott Glen), she hatches a plot to have her friends snatch the various trinkets needed to effect their release by bewitching the bad guys with her sweet moves in sequences that we see only as elaborate battle set-pieces that look suspiciously like videogames, albeit the kind designed for one of those off-brand systems that usually wind up being discounted at Walgreens. (Alas, the film suggests that Babydoll’s moves are the most memorable piece of choreography since the swimming pool scene in “Showgirls,” viewers, alas, never see any of these vaunted dance moves for themselves, only the lavish battle sequences that she is imagining are going on around her.)
In essence, “Sucker Punch” is kind of like Terry Gilliam’s landmark fantasy “Brazil” might have been like if it had been directed by an emotionally, intellectually and artistically deficient idiot. In this case, that idiot would be one-time “visionary filmmaker” Zach Synder, whose previous efforts have included the 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead” (a film which featured an admittedly brilliant opening sequence and which otherwise deemed okay, mostly because it wasn’t as bad as many feared it would be), “300” (a ridiculous take on the Spartan army adapted slavishly from the acclaimed Frank Miller graphic novel), “Watchmen” (his botched take on the legendary graphic novel deconstruction of the superhero mythos) and “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” (an animated 3-D film involving heroic owls that has stymied my two attempts to sit through it, mostly because of my aversion to all talking owls except for the one that used to count how many licks it took to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop). Much has been made in the press about how this is Snyder’s first project derived from original material, after having previously done nothing else but remakes and adaptations, and that it would allow him to show his fans (such people do apparently exist) what he could achieve with his own extravagant ideas and an open checkbook from Warner Brothers, who have financed all his post-“Dawn of the Dead” efforts and who have already hired him to direct the latest reboot of their eternally troubled “Superman” franchise. Based on the evidence presented here, however, Snyder must be working under a heretofore unknown definition of the word “original” because as far as I can tell, the screenplay that he and co-writer Steve Shibuya have cobbled together is essentially a mash-up of elements taken from all over the pop-cultural map ranging from creepy Japanese anime, “Alice in Wonderland,” the paintings of Henry Darger and the video for Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” to the weakest song off of John Mellencamp’s “Scarecrow” album, steampunk and so many references to earlier films that it makes “Paul” seem restrained in that regard by comparison--all of it served up in that oddball visual style he deployed in “300” that makes everything on display look like a cartoon (and quite often not even a very good one at that) . The trouble is that while Snyder has no problem with loading up on all of the disparate elements, he doesn’t have any idea of what he wants to say or do with them. When filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino or Brian De Palma take elements from other sources to deploy in their own work, they at least had the good graces to explore and expand upon them in ways that made them their own so that they could simultaneously pay homage to things they loved while further forwarding and deepening their own stories. Snyder, on the other hand, has no such ambitions going for him--he just shoves all these things in because he wanted to put them in regardless of how little sense they made to the narrative as a whole or even as individual moments and there was no one there with the power or the cajones to convince him otherwise.
Some viewers may be more forgiving of Snyder’s half-assed poaching of the material of others than I am but that is hardly his only misstep here. The basic premise of the screenplay, if I am following it correctly, is that when faced with unspeakable trauma, people have a tendency to sink into their own private worlds where they can control their destinies more successfully than they can in their real lives. This is a notion that has been explored before in such excellent films as the aforementioned “Brazil” and the even-more-underrated “Pennies from Heaven,” that strange and sadly beautiful Dennis Potter creation in which a Depression-era sheet music salesman sees himself as the hero of a series of elaborately produced musical numbers when the pressures and disappointments of real life became too much. Both of those films were as stylized in their own unique ways as “Sucker Punch” but the difference is that in those films, the stories that they were telling were rich and complex enough so that viewers were able to develop an emotional involvement in the characters that wasn’t subsumed by all the visual razzle-dazzle. By comparison, Snyder’s story and characters are as skimpy as the costumes on display --they are so thinly developed and executed that it is impossible to give a damn about Babydoll and her playmates or what will happen to them. Since there is no reason to care about the girls at all, all of the various fight scenes lose whatever tension might have once possessed and the film just becomes a series of scenes in which a bunch of fetish-wear-clad actresses are pushed around like bloodless avatars who seem just as artificial and unreal as their surroundings. As a result, none of the actresses are served well here and with this film coming on top of last week’s boondoggle, “Limitless,” it would appear that the notion of Abbie Cornish becoming the next indie queen is now officially dead. The only actors on display who comes away close to unscathed are Glenn and Hamm, two people who have enough personal personality and charisma to cut through all the CGI glaze and make an impression despite the nonsense around them
As for the deliberately sexed-up appearance of the girls and their surroundings, I am certain that if one were to press Snyder on it, he would mutter something about how he is appropriating sexist imagery and putting it in the hands of strong female characters as a sort of feminist move. One again, unlike people like Madonna or Lady Gaga who do use the sexualized nature of their art and appearance to comment on contemporary sexual mores, Snyder just seems content to pilfer the imagery and without any intellectual context on display to speak of, the whole thing just seems seedy and unwholesome. This, by the way, isn’t necessarily a bad thing but here, it is seedy and unwholesome in a brutally banal and underthought manner that inspires only boredom in the audience while they are in theater and the desire for a long, hot, “Silkwood”-style shower once they get home.It has come to my attention that, ostensibly to earn a PG-13 rating to better help Warner Brothers recoup their presumably hefty investment in the film, Snyder chopped out nearly an entire reel of footage from “Sucker Punch” at the last second--during the end credits, for example, you can see chunks of a full-scale musical number that was shot and later removed from the story proper. In most cases, I would be eager to get a hold of this more complete version on the basis that it would presumably present a more coherent and cohesive take on the narrative that wound up getting inevitably muddled by the deletions. However, “Sucker Punch” is a film so misbegotten, hateful and disastrous on the most fundamental levels possible that I can’t imagine an extended version being anything other than a lot more of a not-so-good thing. Nevertheless, when it comes out on Blu-ray in an extended director’s cut, as I presume it will at some point down the line, I will most likely find myself professionally obligated to sit through it again. My guess is that when that day comes, I will get through it by psychologically willing myself into a fantasy situation in which I am watching a different and better film. The good thing about that, of course, is that it will be rather easy to pick a title because there are very few films out there that could be described as not being better than “Sucker Punch.”
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